Tiny Tina's Wonderlands Review - Spells Like Teen Spirit

  • First Released Mar 25, 2022
  • PC
Darryn Bonthuys on Google+

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands is an easily digestible adventure with fantasy flavor, but this Borderlands spin-off struggles to find its own identity.

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands isn't the first time that first-person shooter franchise Borderlands has delved into a realm of high fantasy--developer Gearbox Software initially explored this genre in the Borderlands 2 DLC-turned-spin-off Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep back in 2013. Almost a decade later, Gearbox is venturing back into the tabletop board game of Bunkers & Badasses for a self-contained tale of swords, sorcery, and the power of stories. While it has inherited a number of the more annoying Borderlands quirks, Wonderlands is still a comfortably familiar experience that wears its passion for tabletop gaming on its sleeve.

As a standalone Borderlands spin-off, Wonderlands doesn't require knowledge of previous Borderlands games to jump into. Instead of focusing on a story about Vault Hunters pursuing alien ruins that house artifacts of incredible power, Wonderlands shifts the focus to recurring side-character Tiny Tina and her latest tabletop gaming session. All of this takes place in a game that closely follows the Borderlands loot-and-shoot gameplay formula--constantly collecting new weapons, growing your character's unique skills, and facing hordes of enemies--and features running commentary from Tina, Valentine, and Frette.

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Tiny Tina is once again calling the shots as the Bunker Master, and alongside the characters of Valentine and Frette--voiced by Andy Samberg and Wanda Sykes--it's up to you to become the Fatemaker who is destined to save the land from the menace of the evil Dragonlord.

Borderlands has always had a strong connection to the RPG genre with its deep and varied character builds, so a swerve from post-apocalyptic sci-fi to the tonally opposite field of fantasy isn't jarring and, in fact, meshes naturally with the loot-and-shoot gameplay of Gearbox's popular franchise. This is still a Borderlands game at its core, and if you've spent a few hours scouring the planet of Nekrotafeyo looking for Typhon DeLeon audio logs while fending off Maliwan troopers in Borderlands 3, then that muscle memory will quickly kick in when you start playing Wonderlands.

Every aspect of Wonderlands is familiar, but with a Tiny Tina visual redesign layered on top of it. Forget about shields; you're protected from some harm thanks to various Wards. Although there are still guns, grenades are out, replaced instead with a book of rechargeable spells that give you the ability to live-action role-play a fireball into a goblin's face or tear the ground asunder with dark magic might. Artifacts, rings, and necklaces confer more bonuses on your character, known as a Fatemaker and, as you'd expect from Borderlands, there's an arsenal of weapons out there to collect and experiment with.

The Wonderlands stockpile doesn't fully commit to the bit, though, as outside of the fantasy facelift, these guns still perform as you'd expect them to. Gun manufacturer brands such as Dahl, Vladof, and Bandit still feature the same characteristics as their Borderlands 3 counterparts, while newer brands such as Swift, Arken, and Bonk give you protective, magical, and melee options. Remember, you can never go wrong with a Bonk mace.

That slot for melee combat is an intriguing addition to the meat-and-potatoes gunplay that Wonderlands has inherited from Borderlands. Getting up close and personal with enemies in previous Borderlands games was a risky tactic reserved for characters with suitable skill-trees like Zer0 and Krieg, but in Wonderlands it pays to focus on making certain that your sword is just as sharp as your sorcery. Combined with the long-distance gunplay, Wonderlands has a satisfyingly chunky rhythm to its chaotic action once you've invested some time in growing your Fatemaker's skills.

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands

After a few hours, I found my groove and felt like a warrior of legend. I'd charge into the thick of battle, slide my way in with a submachine gun, and unleash freezing bolts of action in my path. Following up with enemy-shattering blows from my cleaver, a snap of my fingers to cast armor-melting acid bomb spells, and quick activation of my action skill to polymorph a troll into a very confused sheep, and I was a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.

Just don't expect your character builds in Wonderlands to reach the same level of godlike power that the Vault Hunters of Borderlands 3 were capable of hitting. While every member of the Borderlands troop had three skill trees to pour a considerable number of points into--four if you purchased the Designer's Cut of the game--the Fatemaker classes have a more singular focus in comparison. Each of the game's six classes is highly tuned to focus on a key fantasy archetype, but once you've sunk some time into growing your Fatemaker, you'll soon be able to wield the power of an additional class.

For example, the Spellshot class is a dab hand at firing off spells and stacking buffs to increase the power of these arcane skills, and when combined with the glass cannon skills of the Graveborn, you're able to bolster these skills at the cost of your health. Alternatively, a critical hit-focused Stabbomancer who runs cold with the Brr-Zerker's melee talents can strike from the shadows with frigid ferocity, while a Spore Warden who combines Clawbringer skills with their offense is a fungal lightning rod of destructive power.

These character builds require a significant investment of time to truly reach their peak, but once you've reached a high enough level and have found the right loot, they're creatively chaotic with the devastation that you can reach.

Running Spellshot and Graveborn traits allowed me to build a spell-slinging wizard, rapidly reduce the cooldown on my magic, and augment my sorcery with life-stealing skills that could keep me in the fight for longer. Equipped with the right gear, each spell amplified my gun damage while I summoned meteors from the sky and turned the battlefield into a volcanic landscape.

Admittedly, each Fatemaker class pales in comparison to the flexibility of the Borderlands 3's Vault Hunters, but the gear you randomly acquire mostly fills this gap. There's an element of chance to all of this, though, so the odds of spending hours hunting for that one legendary that perfectly slots into your current character build can be a tiresome grind. With a level cap of 40, you'll have to think very carefully about where you want to apply your limited number of skill points across those two character classes. While you'll have to consider which base class you'll start the game with, you'll never be locked to your secondary class as a re-spec machine in Brighthoof is always available--for a modest fee, of course.

Like Borderlands 3 and its impressive expansion episodes, Wonderlands also boasts some scenic vistas to explore. Each location still follows the atypical Borderlands environment design template of long stretches that you'll sprint through before you reach an arena in which to ply your deadly Fatemaker trade, and you can bet your favorite D20 die that each location has a few secrets to uncover, although these boil down to audio logs and secret die that can marginally increase your luck at finding better loot.

All of these locations are inspired by decades of fantasy material, drawing from the fantasy genre to create caverns that are home to rampaging trolls, spooky beaches populated by phantom pirates, and forests filled with homicidal mushrooms. These are linked together by the Overworld, a slice of tabletop tourism that has even more explorative elements to dig into, more side-quests to engage in, and secrets to uncover. Considering that Wonderlands has no vehicles for you to collect and pilot, the Overworld essentially functions as a means for quick travel and discovery where you can pick up more side-quests and take part in and grind for experience points in dungeons dotted along the map.

The Overworld is a section of the game that really captures the scrappy nature of Wonderlands, as its construction is a mixture of store-bought RPG decorations and discarded popcorn, all held together with duct tape and sheer pluck. It's essentially the core Wonderlands experience distilled into a more easily accessible format, but its appeal quickly fades away once you've unlocked all the fast-travel options present in the game. While it's charming in demonstrating Gearbox's love for classic role-playing games, it's ultimately pointless in the Wonderlands endgame.

Wonderlands picks up a few bad habits from Borderlands 3 in its story and how it tells its tale. There's tonal whiplash that you'll have to deal with regularly, as the game repeatedly shifts from light-hearted fantasy fun to bickering party members dealing with personal issues that threaten to derail the entire tabletop session. When Wonderlands focuses on the absurd imagination of Tina--wonderfully brought to life once again by the energetic voice performance of Ashly Burch--it can be hilarious fun to sit through.

There are moments that recapture the silliness of Borderlands 2, like Mr. Torgue's Bardbarian character casting a magic intercontinental ballistic missile spell powered by friendship or Claptrap's various side-quests that always end with disastrous and hilarious results. These are juxtaposed by an effort to recapture the emotional beats of Assault on Dragon Keep, but the clumsy execution of haphazardly inserting drama feels jarring at best. Even with the assistance of a great villain brought to life by the gravely vocal talents of best Batman Will Arnett, these moments of Tina building a world where she can vent her insecurities and fears fall flat.

Whereas Dragon Keep dealt with Tina's inability to cope with the death of a major Borderlands cast member, Wonderlands focuses on her fear of being abandoned by her friends and new family. Its content that has the potential to be a heartfelt exploration of Tina, but any exploration of these themes is briefly touched upon before being jettisoned into the void.

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands

The mountains of exposition you'll have to deal with also have the habit of making what should be an easily digestible game feel longer than a marathon viewing of The Lord of the Rings trilogy's Extended Editions. Even though the main story clocks in at a breezy 14 hours, you'd swear that you'd spent twice as long listening to characters awkwardly use ye olde medieval speak to ask for your help in slaying ancient dragon gods.

The story content itself dips into the Borderlands bag of parody, self-referential humor, internet memes, and Tina's ability to create new word-chimeras on the fly in her general dialogue. If you weren't a fan of this style of cheeky humor in the Borderlands games, the fantasy-fueled satire is unlikely to win you over either. Credit to Gearbox for going all-in on these jokes, though, as Wonderlands unashamedly skewers the genre it's set in with quests that range from goblin liberation to helping a steam-powered version of Claptrap find his sultry negotiating voice.

That modest campaign length--which is home to a handful of superb boss fights--is bolstered by a number of side-quests that vary in length. In typical Gearbox fashion, the entire fantasy genre is parodied with the missions that you'll be able to engage in, which include helping a band of goblins fight for their rights, assisting Gerritt of Trivia while he constantly berates you, and the odd bout of demonic possession. Don't expect major changes to the mission structure, as a typical Wonderlands quest consists of reaching a location, annihilating anything with even a shred of hostility, listening to some more exposition, and then repeating the formula. It wouldn't be too grating if the rewards at the end of these missions made the repetitive grind worthwhile, but the prize for a slog through dangerous territory is usually mediocre gear at best.

Wonderlands even ventures into roguelike territory with the Chaos Chamber, a selection of gauntlets that offer plenty of loot, cash, and experience points to acquire, if you're prepared to increase the challenge in each stage and face escalating opposition along the way. Just like Borderlands 3, you can even take the elements from the Chaos Chamber and apply them to the lands that you've previously explored in what Wonderlands calls Chaos Mode, for even more opportunity at increasing your Fatemaker power.

Chaos Mode modifiers transform Wonderlands into a more challenging game, buffing enemy health, resilience, and the damage that they can unleash on you. Beyond those standard increases in difficulty, some of the wilder changes include stages having more traps present, dying enemies firing off heat-seeking magic missiles, and gaining increased armor to a specific element the more you use it. Each Chaos Mode level offers bonus experience points and better loot if you survive, but the only way to increase those numbers is by successfully completing a run in a specific iteration of the Chaos Chamber.

The Chaos Chamber distills the entire game experience into a single 20-30 minute gauntlet of danger, one where you're thrown headfirst into arenas that have the potential to be lucrative both financially and in terms of the gear that you can earn along the way. It's a Wonderlands arms race without having to sit through boringly verbose sections, as you constantly chase the thrill of unlocking gear with higher numbers, better stats, and more exotic abilities. As an endgame experience, it's a fun and snack-sized version of Wonderlands, although its appeal will likely only have staying power with players who are looking to create the ultimate Fatemaker build.

As a spin-off, Tiny Tina's Wonderlands doesn't reinvent the Borderlands wheel with its shift towards fantasy that bears a chaotic-neutral alignment. Instead, it explores familiar territory that repeats the best and worst of the Borderlands formula and it doesn't venture out of its comfort zone. That makes for a game that is packed with solid first-person shooter action and a competent multiclass system for creating an interesting Fatemaker. Tiny Tina's Wonderlands retreads the same mechanical and narrative ground as Borderlands 3, ultimately creating a chapter in the franchise that's fun but forgettable.

Darryn Bonthuys on Google+
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The Good

  • Melee attacks and spells add fun gameplay variety to the Borderlands formula
  • Fantasy environments are beautifully designed
  • Chaos Chamber is a fun Borderlands roguelike experience

The Bad

  • Tonally disjointed at key moments
  • Mountains of exposition to sit through
  • User interface is still clunky
  • Feels like a glorified Borderlands 3 expansion
  • Borderlands-style quest structure can quickly become repetitive

About the Author

Former Hyperion employee Darryn Bonthuys spent over 25 hours playing Tiny Tina's Wonderlands on PC, and he picked up some bad hobbits along the way. Review code was provided by the publisher.